a letter to hudson

hey hudson,

you were due to arrive the day i first sat down to start writing this letter. we welcomed you into the world a full week later. now that i’m finally wrapping this up, it’s been three weeks since you breathed your first breath of air–a good sign that you’re arriving in the right family.

Hudson's birth

these are the first words i have ever written to you, and the mere mention of that fact is enough to steal my breath. we have a whole lifetime of words ahead of us to exchange, but these are the first. i will do my best.

before your sister was born, i wrote down some things i wanted to make sure she knew. several years later, it feels presumptuous to think you would want to hear what i have to say, or that what i have to say would be of value to you.

perhaps that is simply the passing of time, but i now feel i have less to offer than i did just a few years ago when it comes to worthwhile advice. time will tell.

the story of my life will not be the story of your life, of course. and yet, the story of my life will undoubtedly give shape to yours. so i thought i might start by telling you what life was like when you first arrived into our family.

life when you arrived

we’ve been living in the bay area for just six months at this point, so it still feels new to us in many ways. and after moving four times in the past five years, life has felt transient for a while now.

before we arrived in california, and before we left our home in washington state before that, we lived in england for two years, and then north carolina for a couple more after that. i had been studying theology in both. our time in england was so rich and full and, in many ways, unbelievable that i wrote a book to do my best to keep it all from falling through my fingers. one day i will have many stories to share with you from that chapter of our life.

your sister, emma, was born just after our time in england, and so she spent the first two years of her life in north carolina. two years of learning how to do life as a family of three. how to crawl. how to walk. it all happened there. by the time we were packing up our things in durham, i found myself wanting to boil the curtains and make a soup out of all the memories we made in that home so that we could take it all on the road with us.

after four years of school, and a year back in washington state, we moved to the bay area so that i could take up a new job–which suddenly sounds very grown up and dad-like of me. how does that happen?

i have found myself wondering lately what you will think when you find out one day that i was a university minister when you were born.

will you find that strange?

will you find that fitting?

that i am working in ministry at all–and in a church, no less–has been one of my life’s great surprises. it wasn’t always the case, which is likely why i’m still trying to wrap my mind around the fact. but so it is.

my workdays are a combination of hearing from college students about their life (mostly) and their faith (sometimes); doing my best to speak meaningfully into their lives on the difference a life of faith in Christ makes in an often faith-less life; and, at times, reading and writing.

even in the surprise of this work, i often struggle to imagine something that would be more meaningful to me. perhaps one day you will know what i mean.

at the end of my days, i follow so many other commuters home along i-80, past the golden gate bridge standing tall and proud on the westward horizon. when i finally arrive home, i am greeted by your sister, now a dizzying three and a half, and your mother.

your sister often runs to the door, greeting me with a wide, watermelon slice grin. your mother also often looks happy to see me, but her smile, i am sure, has more to do with the fact that she knows that she can now be “off” for a bit.

this is, hands down, the highlight of my days.

when you are one day old enough to read this, hudson, you will likely know them both better than i am now able to put into words, but here’s what their lives looked like before you arrived.

emma

your sister has chocolate brown hair that reaches just past her shoulders, with curls on the ends that dance when she runs. her smile is a gift from your mother, and it is enough to stop me dead in my tracks and lighten my foot steps at the same time.

Emma & Hudsonemma is a wizard at puzzles and matching card games, and she is now asking us to read beatrix potter (“peter rabbit”) at bed time. you cannot keep her dry near a pool.

she has already told us that she wants one, make that two dogs. and a cat. we’re doing our best to hold out, but we have no idea how long that will last.

we have been talking about your arrival for some time now, hudson. we’ve been telling emma that you’re coming, so that you don’t completely sideswipe her.

the evening we found out we were having a boy, emma made a disgusted face. “i thought we were having a girl,” she said. which is funny, given that she had already been telling us she was going to be having a brother long before we knew.

when we tell other people your first name, she frequently corrects us. “you mean hudson james,” she says in a teacher’s voice.

she is also, even at three, one of the most thoughtful people i know. it’s not infrequent that we’re in a store and she grabs something, returns to us, and insists that you’ll need it.

emma has been telling us about all the things she’s going to teach you as your big sister: how to brush your teeth, how to do puzzles; important stuff. just the other day i walked in on her wearing her green fairy wings and reading a picture book to a doll seated on her lap. you can add reading to the list.

Emma reading at 3 and a half

as you will learn, emma is quite sensitive, like her parents. be careful with your words, will you? if you give her time and your undivided attention, she will adore you.

the last few weeks before you arrived, emma would often start the day by staring at your mother’s pregnant belly and shouting, “hudson james, come out!”

your sister has been anxious for your arrival. so has your mother.

your mother

i did my best to paint a portrait of your mother in the letter i wrote to your sister upon her birth; maybe you can look over her notes. but there are a couple things i want to tell you about your mother, since i have your attention.

Jen & Hudsonfirst, your mother is the best woman i have ever met. i mean it.

i’ve known your mother for about half of my life at this point, and never before have i met anyone whose heart i trust more. in a world where trust is hard to come by, your mother has been a rock.

but it’s her love that you will most likely come to appreciate most. your mother’s love is tough and strong. it is one of the most patient, steady, and at times sacrificial loves i have ever experienced. there will come a day when you will know this is true, and you will be as grateful for her then as i am today.

i mentioned this to your sister in my letter to her, but your mom, as you will come to learn, is also much tougher than me. i cried like a baby at our wedding; she didn’t lose a single tear. already i’ve gotten into the habit of calling you sweetheart, which she pointed out to me doesn’t sound masculine enough. so i grew a beard and kept calling you sweetheart.

of course, your mother has her rough edges just as much as the rest of us. i’ll let you discover those for yourself.

a few things to avoid, though, when it comes to your mom: early mornings, if you can; unnecessarily expensive gifts; and the spotlight. also, she’s still working on taking compliments.

if you do happen to cross her, chocolate peanut butter sweets do in a pinch.

life: ball lightning, your voice, & paying attention

as i mentioned, i feel reluctant to tell you much in the way of advice. perhaps it’s a growing sense of my own naivete, or perhaps it’s an even bigger question of whether or not you’ll actually be interested. either way, i have my doubts. i’ll keep this short, but here are some things i’ve noticed when i look out at the world.

Dadda & Hudson

first, you should know that my life has not unfolded according to some well executed plan on my part; it has exploded with surprises. apparently there are actually those most enviable people for whom life seems to go according to plan. but for me, life has been more like ball lightning: exploding here, exploding there, and then, darkness and silence.

in the seeming chaos of it all, you will most likely find yourself wondering, what in the world was that about? but then, after some time, you will look back and think, my God… that was beautiful.

knowing this, in advance, can save you much heartache.

do your best to surround yourself with the kind of people who can put a finger on the ball lightning moments, trace them to the next, and tell you a story. friends are the ones who give meaning to the ball lightning chaos of life.

second, and in absolutely no order, i have to tell you something that will sound like something i have to tell you. i know. but here it is.

you are a male, and a white male at that. which means that you will have, by nature of your birth, a voice. do not take this lightly.

things are changing by the day at this point. in the last couple of years, we have seen the kind of racial violence we haven’t seen in 50 years. i hope to God that things have improved by the time you’re able to read this, but experience shows that these things take time. and lots of hard, intentional, proactive work.

if things have not improved, it means your voice will be heard at a whisper when others are shouting from the rooftops. if you do not use that for good, i have failed you as a father.

and lastly–i promised you i’d keep this short–i cannot hope to know what will bring your life the kind of hope and joy that i desire for you. you will no doubt be influenced by those things that have brought hope and joy to my own life: books, authors, people, places. but i hope you hear me here: when you happen to come across those things that steal your breath and bring you surprise tears, pay attention. pay attention to your life, hudson.

if life is for you anything like it has been for me, the rush of it all will beg you to keep moving. it will tell you that to stop and take it all in is to fall behind.

do not listen.

if you can, pay attention to that which brings life to your life, and point.

music & books

two of the things that have brought life to my life have been music and books. perhaps it will be the same for you.

so you know, the first three songs you heard were “ara batur,” by sigur ros; “drift,” by kim janssen; and “love is all,” by the tallest man on earth. you could do worse than these three.

i do hope you have a deep appreciation for words, as i do. in the way of writers, your taste is not likely to be the same as mine, but here are a few who have left a mark on my life.

frederick buechner encouraged me to see the holiness and grace in everyday life. in the most ordinary, routine moments just as much as in the highest peaks or deepest valleys. that lesson has made each day, no matter how mundane, worth living into deeply.

c. s. lewis once showed me that it is okay to be a thinking christian. maybe, and hopefully, that will sound like a given, but that lesson changed my life in tangible ways.

and dietrich bonhoeffer not only wrote, but lived in such a way that showed me that our God-given gifts are not to be used merely, or even primarily, for ourselves. they are to be poured out for Christ’s sake, which is to say, for the sake of the world. if we try to keep such gifts for our own gain, they will not only spoil, they will turn us sour with them.

there are more writers whose work i would like to share with you, of course. i am sure you and i will discuss them in the years ahead. but if you take your time with these three, your life, and the lives of those around you, will be richer for it. of that i am sure.

not looking the other way

one last thing before i go. at the moment of your birth, your doctor welcomed you into the world and placed you into your mother’s arms in one beautiful, sweeping motion. in an instant, i found myself simultaneously laughing and crying.

Dadda & Hudson first sight

the head nurse was there, standing opposite me, on the other side of your mother. she turned her eyes from you to me and said, “you look as though you didn’t know he was in there!”

i knew you were “in there,” of course, and that you would soon be with us. but if i were being honest with you, hudson, i’d tell you that life has been so busy, at this point where my feet stood waiting for life with you in it, that i had worried you were going to arrive and i would find myself looking the other way.

but here’s the thing, when you arrived, it was impossible for me to be looking anywhere else. i was staring straight at you, but it was you who were looking the other way. and as i spoke to the back of your head, laughing between tears, you picked up your head and turned to face me.

in that moment, as best as i can describe it, i knew the gratuity of God’s grace. one day, i hope, you will know the same.

and years from now, when you take your first steps; when you learn to throw a ball; when you spell your own name for the first time; when you pick up a pen and tell the world a story; when you tell me that you’ve met someone; when you give your heart away; when you receive it back again in pieces; when you come to us and say you’ve decided to step out in faith; i promise to do my best not to be caught looking the other way.

i love you, hudson. we all love you, so much. and in you i see God’s gratuitous grace. if you know nothing else, know that.

i hope you can forgive the trite nature of any or all of my words. i am still new at this, but i am working on it.

your dad,

ryan

you can’t go home again

bill bryson once said there are three things you cannot do in life.

“You can’t beat the phone company, you can’t make a waiter see you until he’s ready to see you, and you can’t go home again.”

and i think that’s true. especially the last one.

i was sitting on a wood bench recently, watching my (almost) two-year-old daughter run across a playground, brown curls flowing in the air behind her, pea-gravel crunching underfoot.

behind me, a baseball field stood silent and awkward. its hair slightly overgrown, the infield unkept. the same ballfield where i learned to play third base.

on the other side of the playground, a river floated slowly by. the same river on which i used to spend lazy summer days floating on large, black inflatable tubes with friends.

the stop sign across the street is where i used to catch the school bus, when i was not all that much older than our little girl, now grinning widely at me from the top of the yellow slide, making sure she has my attention.

it was home, in many ways. but it was then that i realized, in many ways, it was no longer home.

things have been quiet

with the exception of a few intermittent posts–some words on the saturday afternoon when my sister-in-law was struck by the nightmarish news of cancer at just 25 years old, a handful of posts on holy week, and asking what it means to grieve the death of a loved one as a christian–things have been pretty quiet here over the past four years.

as quiet as things have been here, things have been pretty busy in the rest of life over the past four years.

for starters, we left home, work, and community, and went to england. and we had some pretty incredible experiences along the way, while i earned a degree in theology.

in the two months between wrapping up one degree and starting another, we welcomed our first child into the world. a beautiful girl we named emma.

we moved, again, to north carolina–an entirely new country for us, in many ways–where i completed another degree in theology.

along the way, i tried to get a couple books published, and I ended up batting .500 (more on that later).

then, after another round of ‘goodbyes,’ we came home. sort of.

trying to wear someone else’s shoes

a lot has changed since we left, it seems. as much about home as about us.

some buildings have come down. others have gone up.

my grandmother’s 30-plus year prayers have come true: we finally won a superbowl.

new relationships have been formed. others have died away with time and distance.

some new people have come since we’ve been gone. others have left.

we’ve come, and we’ve gone. and we’re not the same for it.

and no matter how much i know, deep down, that this place is the place we used to call “home,” there’s still much about it that feels as though i’m trying to wear someone else’s worn-in shoes.

“you can’t go home again,” bryson wrote. and it would seem he was right.

this isn’t home. not exactly. but we’re here, we’re back, and we’re looking forward to doing life again from here.

picking up the pen again

i am looking forward to picking up the pen and beginning again. and there are a few things i’ve thinking about, things i’d love to spend some time writing on. i’m hoping to do that here, as well as pitch a few of them elsewhere.

here are some of the things i’ve been chewing on during my early morning jogs, with the smell of fresh-picked raspberries floating through the air, and the snowcapped mountains framing the horizon.

calling

i’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about calling for the last couple years.

i’m thrilled to announce that i have a memoir being published on the topic of calling–and, specifically, what it looked like in our life when we set out to pursue a calling.

it’s titled, Called: My Journey to C.S. Lewis’s House and Back Again, and it’s due out in february of 2015 (leafwood publishers). i’m looking forward to sharing the cover artwork very soon.

i’ve had the chance to give a few talks on the topic of calling over the past year or two, and i’m looking forward to doing more of that as things wind up for the book release.

in addition to telling our story of what it was like to leave everything and set out in pursuit of what we believed to be God’s call on my life, more and more, i’ve begun to wonder whether we even know what we mean when we use the word “calling.”

especially as christians.

whatever it means to be called, i am more and more certain that it doesn’t merely mean following our dreams, putting our talents to use, or even simply responding to the needs of those around us.

i think it means something totally different than that, and i’m looking forward to spending more time writing about this in the near future.

life & death

i was talking with a friend before we left north carolina–a friend who had just found out that he and his wife were not going to give birth to their second child after all–and we were talking about the fact that, in the face of death and the messiness of grief, silence really is the worst response.

and yet, it’s also one of the most common responses to grief.

and i think one of the main reasons we so often respond to death with silence is because we don’t know what to do with death.

when what was supposed to be the joy of preparing to welcome a new family member into the world turns out to be a painful surgery in a matter of just a few days; when the phone call comes on saturday saying the test results came back and it looks like cancer; when the brain tumor shows up at 50 and you’re trying to put back the pieces of your life after your mom, wife, neighbor is no longer there, we are left speechless.

we don’t know what to do with death. and i have a theory about why i think this is.

i think one of the reasons we don’t know what to do with death, at least among many Christians, is because we skip right over Jesus’ death. and the reason we skip over Jesus’ death is because of our joyous expectation of the Easter Resurrection.

and i think that’s a massive problem, for which all of us pay the price.

anyways, that’s my theory. i need to flesh it out a bit–sorry, unintended pun. i’m looking forward to doing so soon.

commodification of everything

i recently heard about a theologian who was asked at a conference what he’s trying to prevent in his work. his response? “the commodification of everything.”

for some reason, i cannot get my mind off of that statement.

specifically, i’ve been thinking about the fact that the commodification of everything is the natural, logical result of capitalism.

now, i’m not about to sign up for marxism (is that still a thing?), but i do think there are some important questions to ask when everything is available for purchase.

for one thing, i’ve been thinking about the fact that, in our visual-centric society, to be seen is already to be commodified (think hipster clothing for sale at target, reality tv, artists who begin their careers on youtube, etc.). i’ve been using the term ‘ocular commodification’ for this idea. but i have much more thinking to do here.

anyway, this idea is related to two other things i’d like to write about.

raising a daughter

i’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to raise a young girl who is already praised for her beauty before her second birthday in a culture that commodifies bodies (especially physically beautiful bodies), while also, simultaneously, giving girls impossible models for what their bodies should look like, making them feel hopelessly, endlessly inadequate.

(i think boys run into the same issues, of course. it’s just that i only have a daughter at the moment, and so that’s what i’ve been thinking about).

i’m not exactly sure what this means for raising our daughter, but i think a lot of it will have to do with talking about the kind of stories we are told.

about how some stories lead to life, and some stories lead to the kind of life that is better described as death. and about how those stories that try to tell us that our bodies are something that can be purchased, or used to make us feel hopelessly inadequate, are deadly stories.

there’s much more to say here, of course, and i’m looking forward to doing so soon.

identity

with my 30th birthday looming just around the corner, on the other side of graduate studies, and still seeking clarity on what my next professional role will be, i’ve been thinking a lot about identity lately.

specifically, i’ve been thinking about the fact that i hate how identity-less i feel when i don’t have a seminar paper deadline, or when i am not entering my time card at the end of another work week.

i’ve been thinking about how much my identity is tied up into what i’m doing, instead of who i am.

i’ve been thinking about the fact that, in publishing a book that will involve the most important, intimate stories from my life–the kind of stories that have shaped who i am as a person–i have actually, voluntarily, commodified myself.

of course, i am more than my stories. which has left me wanting to think and write more about identity.

the poor & the oppressed

i’ve had the privilege of being involved with a couple organizations whose purposes are to care for the poor in the developing world and come to the aid of victims of human trafficking.

they’re both great causes, of course. but, something i’ve been thinking about lately is the question, why?

why should we care for the poor? why should we care for victims of sexual abuse?

because it’s the right thing to do? that can’t be a good answer.

i think we all assume these are good causes to be involved in–and i absolutely believe both are vitally important causes–but i think the reason why these are important causes matters greatly.

i think i know the answer, i think i know why these are important, but i need to think and write a bit more about it. i’m looking forward to doing that soon.

the living Word

and, of course, all of these questions will involve that question i simply cannot seem to shake, no matter where i am, or what i’m doing:

why does it matter that Jesus is the living, enfleshed Word of God, in Whom God is reconciling the world to Himself?

you can’t go home again

my daughter comes flying out the end of the yellow slide wearing a wide, apple-slice grin and i catch her in my arms.

‘let’s go home and get some lunch, whatta ya think?’ i ask her.

she nods her head and mouths, ‘yeah, yeah, yeah,’ as she does.

on our way back to the house, a 50-something woman i do not recognize smiles and waves to us, as though to say, ‘it’s good to see you again. it’s good to have you home.’

“you can’t go home again,” bryson says. and i think he’s right.

the place called home as well as the home inside each one of us is always changing. always moving.

and as much as i want to fight that with all my being, as much as i want to go back to how things used to be at times, i am beginning to think it might not be such a bad thing that we can’t go home again.

i’m looking forward to picking up the pen and beginning again, here from our new, old home.

as always, thanks for reading.

a letter to emma

hi there, princess. it’s me, ryan. your dad. the one with the lower voice who you hear every once in a while when you’re trying to nap. or when you’re in the middle of your water aerobics routine.

you’re not far away at this point. very soon you’ll be joining us here, in the world, rather than reclining in the warmth of your mother’s womb. and we can’t wait to meet you.

we’re getting things ready for you here. picking out clothes for you to wear. setting up your bed. and tucking away plenty of fuzzy blankets. the world is getting ready for your arrival.

and i know you won’t be able to read this for a while yet, but i wanted to take the time to write you a note. i thought i’d give you a heads-up on the world that’s preparing for you, so you can prepare for it.

now, i haven’t been here for long–less than 30 years, at this point–and i’m far from having things all figured out, but i have been here long enough to take note of a few things. and so i thought i’d scratch them down for you, hoping one day they might be helpful for you.

some of this may be helpful right away. other bits will likely not be helpful until years later. and the rest, well the rest may not be helpful at all.

and if, for some reason, it turns out that none of this is all that helpful by the time you’re old enough to read it, i apologize. but know i’ve given it my best.

your mother

to start, i thought i’d tell you a few things about your mother. you’ll be spending a lot of time with her, so you’ll have plenty of opportunities to get to know her for yourself, but i’ve known her for some time now. more than 10 years, i guess. so i have a bit of a head-start, and i thought i’d give you a few pointers.

first, and most importantly, the thing you should know about your mother is that she has been waiting for you for a long, long time. in fact, you should know that you are your mother’s dream come true. it may not always feel like it, particularly when you get to the age of 13 or so, but it’s true. ever since i’ve known your mother, she’s dreamed of welcoming you into this world.

and so, on those more difficult days, never forget: long before you showed up, your mother dreamt of holding you in her arms. that will be true whether you’re 16 months or 16 years old.

the second thing you should know about your mother is that she likes her sleep. i tell you this because, if you want to earn some major points with her someday, let her sleep in. and then bring her breakfast in bed (preferably pancakes with chocolate chips). she’ll smile at you with the kind of smile that stole my heart years ago if you do.

thirdly, you should know your mother sees things in black and white. and i love that about her, mostly because it’s very unlike me. if you want to have a long conversation as you think through things, you will find i’m the man for the job. but if you don’t have time to waste and you just want a straight answer, you’re probably better off asking your mom. she’s a straight-shooter.

the last thing i’ll tell you about your mother is that she likes gerber daisies, peanut butter and chocolate (especially together), fuzzy socks, and puzzles. she does not like bananas, spiders or feet.

i could go on, but that should be good for now. i have a few other things i want to tell you that i hope might be helpful.

love

perhaps it’s good i started with your mother, because the next bit isn’t quite so nice.

you see, the thing is, emma, you’re being born into a world with a lot of wounds. i’m very sorry to say it, but we haven’t been very good to one another. the people who came before us weren’t very good to each other, either. nor were those who came before them.

and so what you’ll find as you move through life is a lot of brokenness. and hurt. you’ll find people have a hard time trusting one another. you’ll find people getting frustrated over things that really shouldn’t matter all that much. you’ll find people saying mean things and generally acting pretty ugly to one another a lot of times.

but don’t take it personally. it’s not about you. it’s about all of us. and the pain we share.

you didn’t create this pain, but you will be born into it. just like all of us. and like all of us, you will be asked to carry an overwhelming amount of this pain. more than seems fair. more than you can bear.

i’m very sorry about that, but my hope is that you may be able to help do something about it. in fact, my hope is that your life may be lived in such a way that you might help to heal it from the inside out.

now i know that seems like an awful lot to ask of you. and i know you’re probably asking yourself how you are possibly supposed to help heal the wounds of this world that has been broken and hurting since long before you arrived.

my answer? with love.

and yes, i know. i know that sounds terribly idealistic. i know it is sounds so simple. and it is. but it isn’t, at the same time.

you see, if you want to make a difference in this world, emma, if you want to help heal the brokenness and the hurt, you have to love.

love those who show you love. love those who don’t. love those closest to you. love perfect strangers.

and no matter how useless or thankless it seems, keep going. not to be noticed, not to be rewarded, but simply because you believe in it.

mother teresa, a woman who left us before you got here, and a woman who not only believed in love, but who embodied it, has this great quote where she says,

“do not think that love in order to be genuine has to be extraordinary. what we need is to love without getting tired.”

i hope you find a way to love like that, emma. without getting tired. if you do, the world will be better for it.

work

now i know it’s a little early for me to be talking to you about work. don’t worry. for the first 18 years or so of your life, we’ve got you covered. (and probably for a while after that, the way things are looking at the moment).

but eventually, there will come a time when you have to start thinking about what it is you want to put your hands to. we all do. here are my thoughts for when you begin to think about this.

when it comes time to consider what it is you’d like to invest your time doing, don’t over-think it. instead, trust your heart. you’ll find, as you go through life, that you like certain things. you’ll also find you dislike other things. you’ll find there are things you’re pretty good at. you’ll also find there are things you’re not so good at.

if you can, find a way to combine what you enjoy doing with the things you’re pretty good at. if you can do that, this world will not only reward you for your work, but you will find that the world will be rewarded by your work.

Truth

another thing you’ll find in this world is that everyone has questions, and everyone is looking for answers. people want to know why we’re here. they want to know where we’re going. and they want to know what happens when the curtain of this life comes tumbling down.

you’ll find, as you go through life, that people offer a lot of different answers to these questions. you’ll find some people who say their answer is the right one. and you’ll find others who say all answers are right, just as much as the next one.

we’re going to spend a lot of time together, you and i, so you’re going to find out very early on what i believe. and you’ll probably even be influenced by my beliefs. but i’m honest enough with myself to admit that there will come a day when you start poking around to find the source of Truth for yourself. when you do, here are three things i hope you’ll think about.

first, when you’re considering whether something provides answers for life’s great questions, ask yourself, “does this help make sense of what i know about the world around me? or, instead, does it sound like something someone would make up, out of some sort of wishful thinking?”

secondly, and order is important here, ask yourself, “is this aesthetically pleasing?” what i mean by that is, when you’ve found something that you think makes sense, ask yourself if it’s actually attractive, as well.

and then, lastly, after you’ve done all that, ask yourself, “does it make a difference with the pain and the hurt of this world?”

i say order is important because if something simply doesn’t hold water, in the first place, then don’t bother with how much you’d like it to be true.

but, if you find it seems reasonable enough, in light of what you know of this world, then go on to ask how it satisfies your taste for beauty. when you hear it, does it make you smile? does it make you smile uncontrollably? while not necessarily a guarantee of Truth, beauty seems to be an awfully good indicator of it.

and then, when you’ve done all that, ask yourself whether it actually makes a difference with the brokenness of this world. i can’t imagine Truth suggesting we run from the brokenness and pain that surrounds us. i can only imagine Truth healing it. any offer of truth that doesn’t do something to heal the pain and hurt of this world is too thin to be True.

i think what you’ll find when you’ve really considered things, emma, is that Truth is both intellectually satisfying and aesthetically pleasing. you’re not likely to find that all of your questions are answered with a watertight solution, but if any attempt at an explanation for our questions does not satisfy both of these requirements, and if it does not then actually attempt to make a difference with the brokenness of this world, be careful how much you trust it.

and one more thing, while we’re on this topic: there are going to be many, many people who disagree with you once you’ve arrived at a particular position. and plenty of them will be much more intelligent than you.

don’t let that bother you. but don’t shut them out, either. listen to other people’s questions. go deeply with them, and allow them to critique your ideas, as you do theirs.

but at the end of the day, when you still have questions and their arguments still scratch at the back of your mind, don’t believe or disbelieve something simply because of what others say. believe in what you think to be true and beautiful because of what you know of the world around you. at the end of the day, that’s the only thing that will provide a solid foundation for anything you hold to.

a handful of thoughts

i’m sorry these final thoughts don’t fit into any neat categories, but here are a handful of thoughts i wanted to share with you before i go.

there are an awful lot of things in life we don’t get to choose. friends is one exception. i hope you surround yourself with great friends.

i hope you surround yourself with the kind of people who love you enough to tell you the truth, even when it hurts. and if it hurts you to hear, know it hurts them to say.

if you’re hurting or struggling or lonely or confused, and you find yourself feeling like you’re the only one, remember, you’re probably not. there’s an awful lot of us. because of that, there’s someone who has likely been where you are who can help.

growing up, my grandpa (your great-grandpa) used to say, “if you see something that needs to be done, go ahead and do it. don’t wait to be asked to do it.”

i think that’s a pretty good rule. except if it’s your mom’s things left out. if that’s the case, know they’re probably there for a reason and don’t need to be picked up. trust me on this one.

i mentioned this previously, but you’re going to find things in life that you’re pretty good at. i realized i should also tell you, you’re going to meet people who are better than you at whatever that might be.

don’t let that get you down. do what you cannot not do, and do it in the way only you can.

and on a similar note, remember that we’re not likely to always be the best, the smartest, the fastest or the strongest, but we can always choose to work the hardest at whatever it is we do.

one thing you’ll come to learn is i married your mother, in large part, because she has one of the biggest hearts of anyone i know. i love that about her. i also inherited a big heart from my parents, which means you can expect to have one yourself.

two warnings about that: first, guard it. be careful. you will find your heart often leads you to love people in a way that they might not always return. and that can hurt. others aren’t always going to love as you do, and expecting them to can lead to disappointment.

at the same time, be careful you don’t guard your heart so much that you don’t allow others to feel its warmth in a way that makes their life better. that is, after all, the reason you have it in the first place.

as a girl, and later as a woman, you’ll have the temptation to believe that you ought to be defined by your body. i hope you don’t. i hope you know that you’re so much more than that. cs lewis, an author who has helped me out a lot, as you’ll come to learn, once wrote, you aren’t a body, you have a body. you don’t have a soul, you are a soul. and i think there’s a lot of truth in that.

on a similar note, one thing i hope you learn to avoid is allowing others to determine your value. what i mean is, know you are worth more than what others might think of you. or not think of you. you see, living to please others is like starting a race that has no finish line. if you can avoid this, you will save yourself an incredible amount of time, energy, and hurt.

at the same time, know that the greatest experiences in your life will come from the times you put others before yourself. they’ll come when, in one way or another, you were serving another. it seems counter-intuitive, i know, but that’s how it goes.

you’ll also find, as you go through life, that the most rewarding experiences will come from the greatest challenges. i wish it weren’t the case, but it seems to be a universal truth. knowing this, in advance, can help when you’re facing those challenges.

and, lastly, when life brings you to a point where you simply don’t know what to do, when you have to make a decision and you have no idea how to move forward, imagine yourself having to explain your decision to your future son or daughter one day (when you’re much, much older). that’s what i did with you, long before you arrived, and it helped me with some of my most difficult decisions.

see you soon

well emma, you’ll soon be making your way into this world. and we’ll be here waiting for you. like friends and family at the airport after a long flight. we’ll be wearing smiles, and we’ll be crying. well, i will be. your mom claims not to cry when she’s happy.

but here’s the thing, princess, no matter how dark this world will seem at times, know that you never have to go it alone. not ever.

when this world is overwhelming, when pain and fear is so great you want to run and hide, i want you to know this: your mother and i are here for you. and we love you. we love you with the kind of love that doesn’t make any sense. we loved you before you entered this world, and we will love you long after you arrive. we will always love you, with the kind of love that doesn’t get tired.

and at the end of a long day, a difficult month or even year, when you still have questions, you’ll find me waiting. patiently. you’ll find my lap to crawl in and my ears attentive. and when you’ve grown too big for my lap, you’ll still find my ears patiently waiting. and then, as now, i’ll give it my best.

see you soon, princess.

love,

your dad

tears of hope: a christian perspective on death

two years ago, we said “goodbye” to my sister-in-law, hayley dawn. though it hardly feels right using the words “in-law.” she never used them when she introduced me as her brother.

this goodbye came after five of the most difficult days of our lives. days spent praying, crying and struggling to keep conversation. days that became blurred together, spent in the hospital that acted as our makeshift home for the week.

we prayed at her bedside. we prayed when we were walking alone in those cold, long hospital wings. we prayed in the middle of conversations, to ourselves. we tried to sleep. tried to eat. but it didn’t make sense. none of it did.

and then, on may 1, she was gone. just like that.

without a chance to catch our breath, we were forced to move forward, pushed along by the pressing current of passing seconds, minutes, hours and days. pushed along by weeks and months that had no sympathy for this loss. pressed by the forward movement of time that seemed to want to swallow up and fill in the void left by her absence.

and we were left dumbstruck by it all. i’ve never seen someone look so confused until that day i saw two parents lose their 19-year old daughter. i’ve never felt so confused myself until i felt those first moments in the absence of my sister’s life.

death doesn’t fit life

death is a funny thing. not funny “ha ha,” of course, but funny in a sesame street, “one of these things does not belong” kind of way.

death is funny, in a way, because it just doesn’t seem to fit with life. we squirm when we think or talk about death, even though it’s supposed to be this natural thing.

“it’s as natural as birth,” they tell us, but i’ve yet to meet someone who actually feels that way when it happens to those closest to them.

i realize death is common to us all. and i might even be willing to admit it’s a part of life (as we know it). but i’m not so sure i believe it’s natural. and i think, intuitively, we all know that.

when someone close to us has passed away, everything within us screams at this news. our very soul wants to shout,

“no!…

this isn’t right!

it’s unnatural!”

and it is.

i say death is unnatural because we were not created to die, we were created to live. and our souls know that.

our souls don’t get death. it leaves us scratching our heads, like the young boy who’s just been told his grandpa has “gone up to be with Jesus,” left to ask, “sooo… can i go see him?”

we are eternal beings forced into the temporal. like a fish snatched from its aquatic home; placed on the dry, dusty ground; and commanded to walk. like a fish flapping its body against the dirt, struggling to breathe, we simply do not know what to do when faced with the reality of death.

savored like a six-course meal

if our souls know death is unnatural, it seems our memories do, as well. when we lose someone close to us, our minds have a way of not letting them go.

memories of a lost loved one rush at us like hungry koi racing to the surface of our mind as we go about our day. we’re constantly reminded of the reality of their life as memories from times together are cast like a shadow on the back of our eyes.

sometimes they visit us when a particular experience triggers a memory. sometimes they seem to come by no invitation at all.

and no matter how painful they may seem at the time, we wouldn’t trade those memories for the world. when the aftertaste is all we have, we savor it like a six-course meal.

it’s funny the way memory works. i’ve lived in the uk for two years now, and i still can’t tell you my phone number. yet i have no trouble recalling conversations that took place years ago.

before i leave

the memory of hayley that i can’t shake lately is of our family sitting around the dining room table and talking, long after we had finished eating, as we often do.

in this particular memory, hayley is getting on to me about hurrying up and having a baby already. jen had wanted a baby for a long time, and everyone knew it. i was dragging my feet, and everyone knew that, too.

it was a bit of a touchy subject, though, since it was well known i was hoping to wait a bit before we started having children. because of that, people wouldn’t really bring it up to me.

but hayley would. hayley could. that’s just how things worked between us. and hayley wanted a niece or nephew nearly as much as jen wanted a baby.

hayley was considering moving away to hawaii for college at the time, and she wanted to make sure she was home when we finally decided to have our first child. she didn’t realize it at the time–she couldn’t have–but something she said that evening would stick with me for years to come. the words she spoke that night would prove to be a painful reminder of the depth of this loss long after she was gone.

after talking excitedly about how she couldn’t wait to be an aunt, hayley’s face became serious as she looked me in the eyes from her seat across the table and said, rather pointedly,

“you have to have one before i leave, ryan.”

hayley never made it to hawaii.

and now, two years later, and just a few months away from the arrival of our first child, this memory replays itself in my mind day after day in the still quietness of a library. i distract myself with sideways glances out the second-story window, but staring out into the pale blue sky, i can’t help but cringe at the thought that our little emma will grow up without her aunt hayley.

this is my first time having children, so i’m certainly not an expert on how this is supposed to go, but there’s nothing about this that feels natural to me.

dressing up death

some christians, when talking about death, will try to downplay its significance. they’ll dress it up and tell us it’s a good thing, not a bad thing. and they’re right, in some ways. but i think they’re terribly wrong in others.

when faced with the death of a close friend, Jesus cried tears of sorrow, even though He knew he would soon bring this friend back to life.

i’ve heard some christian writers say Jesus was crying because he was fed up with all the unbelief He experienced. they’ll say these people should’ve known Jesus could do anything, even bring this deceased friend back to life, and that Jesus had simply had it with their lack of faith.

but i don’t buy that. we see lots of examples of Jesus being frustrated by the shallow faith of His followers, but not once does He respond with tears. not except for here, in this one instance.

and i think that tells us that these were real, genuine tears of sorrow. i believe these were tears of anger, even. anger at the ugliness of death, and the hurt that comes with it. i think Jesus saw that. and felt it.

Jesus knew this isn’t the way things were supposed to work. He knew things had gone terribly wrong, and death was a painful reminder of that.

Jesus’ tears at the news of His friend’s death tells us death really isn’t a good thing. they remind us that we don’t have to dress up death as being beautiful or pretend like we’re all right, even when we all know, deep down, it’s ugly and painful. and that we’re not all right.

Jesus’ tears tell us its okay to grieve and acknowledge the ugliness of death with our own tears. even as christians. and even if we approach death in great hope of what is to come.

a different take

in a way, those who try to dress up death are right, i suppose. as christians, we do have a different take on death.

if we believed this was all there is–birth, life, death and then the cessation of our being–we would cry without hope. but we don’t. we do cry–my God, do we cry!–but we cry with hope.

as christians, we believe what happens on the other side of this life is infinitely more beautiful than this present darkness is dark. but we must be careful when it comes to talking about death.

if we’re not careful, we can make it seem like the loss of a loved one isn’t that big of a deal. it is. it always is. things are broken, and they’re broken in a way that hurts us deeply.

and if we’re not careful, we can also make it seem like grieving isn’t appropriate for christians, not in light of what we know. but the thing is, grieving is perfectly appropriate for christians, in light of how horrible death is.

Jesus felt it appropriate to weep in the face of death. so, too, do we.

death reminds us things are not the way they were meant to be, and we feel the pain of the world’s present brokenness just as much as anyone else.

we’re no longer fearful of death, we might say. and rightly so. because we have hope that on the other side of this life is the real life. life with Him. and so death is no longer a scary thing. but it’s also not a beautiful thing.

the reason for our tears over death is not that the next place is so scary, it’s that saying “goodbye” is so hard, even if it’s only for a time.

darkness into dawn

there’s this account in the book a severe mercy where a friend of c.s. lewis’s, an american by the name of sheldon vanauken who had met and befriended lewis while studying in oxford during the 1950’s, had lunch with lewis for the last time. the two friends would exchange letters with one another for many years to come, but this would be their final time meeting in-person, though neither men knew it at the time.

after sharing a meal together, the two men bid each other “farewell,” and lewis assured his friend they’d see one another again:

“i shan’t say good-bye. we’ll meet again.”

with that, lewis crossed the street, dodging traffic as he went. and it was when he had safely reached the other side of the road that he turned around and shouted back with a grin:

“…besides, christians never say goodbye!”

death is a funny thing. we’re told it’s natural, and yet we intuitively know it’s not. we know life is not supposed to end. and, we’re told–thank God–that it won’t. it won’t really.

we’re told, because of His sacrifice, there is hope. even when it seems like this news brings only darkness, we know, deep down, there is hope. because of what He has done.

and so, as trite as they may seem during our darkest moments, there is still great truth in the words clement of alexandria wrote many, many years ago:

“Christ has turned all of our sunsets into dawns.”

see you soon

and so we cry. we cry when we remember those words they once said. we cry when we remember that look on their face. we cry when we remember the sound of their laugh or the little things they did with their hands when they talked.

we cry because we know this isn’t how things are supposed to be. we cry because we know death is unnatural and because we want them back. we cry because we want them back so bad. we cry because it’s tough to say “goodbye.”

but we cry with tears of hope, because deep down we know our tears will not last forever. we know it’s not really “goodbye.” not really. it’s “goodbye for now.” it’s “see you soon.”

-for hayley dawn, and for those who cry with tears of hope-
you remain missed